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Lent 5: The Fear of Conflict and New Life

March 19, 2013

A sermon preached by the Rev. Sarah Henkel at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 10, 2013. This is sermon number five out of six on the subject of fear.


Isaiah 43:16-21          John 12:1-11

This passage from Isaiah is a call to God’s people, living in exile, to put their faith in a God of hope, one who is at work in our past, but even more importantly, in our future.  Isaiah lifts up an image of God as one who makes water appear in the desert.  God whose vision and plans for the future, express hope beyond what we can envision.

We hold this picture of the God of hope creating springs of water in the desert and place it next to our gospel reading today, John’s telling of the Anointing at Bethany that is in many ways the true beginning of Jesus’ journey toward Jerusalem and to his death on the cross.  The God of hope is present in that house in Bethany, in fact God is there seated at the table with Jesus, Mary and Martha, embodied in Lazarus.  Lazarus who was very recently dead and now sits at table with family and friends because of Jesus’ healing power.  Lazarus, raised from the dead, is evidence of a God of new life and hope…AND he is also a figure of conflict lingering and foreshadowing Jesus’ final days.  The resurrection of Lazarus has created a stir – faithful followers are shocked and amazed, enemies are threatened and the plot to end Jesus’ life takes on shape and urgency.

We must view Mary’s poignant act, the anointing of Jesus’ feet, in the context of conflict. Mary’s action is more than simply an act of gratitude in thanks for her brother’s life restored.  Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet – with expensive perfume applied with her own hair – is a prophetic, bold step into the midst of the mounting conflict focused on Jesus and his ministry.  This is clear in the debate that erupts immediately in that room as Mary kneels at Jesus’ feet – Judas says the money spent on the perfume should have gone to the poor, John, the gospel writer, inserts an aside that Judas actually wanted to steal that money, Jesus tells Judas to leave Mary alone.

A few weeks ago, Pastor Jeff and I participated in a Conflict Mediation course led by the Lombard Mennonite Center and hosted by this church.  In our reading for the training, two understandings of conflict – Western and Eastern – were offered. “In the Western world, ‘conflict’ is rooted the Latin word confligere. Literally this means ‘to strike together.’ It leaves us with an image of flint and stone, sparks, heat and fire. ‘Heat’ is one of the most common metaphors for conflict.  How many times have you heard or used one of these phrases: a “heated” discussion, “boiling” mad, an issue too “hot” to                               handle, or problems “simmering” below the surface.”[i]

This is the understanding of conflict that inspires our fear. Fear of the sparks that will fly if certain things are mentioned at the dinner table.  Fear of the heat of our own anger if we speak the truth to someone who has offended us.  And that fear of conflict is what often leaves the conflict unresolved so that the fear and the conflict grow into even deeper wounds or grudges that become old, entrenched, and seemingly too heavy to move.

But there is another way to view conflict, one that does not dismiss the risks of entering into conflict but pairs that risk with an invitation. “The Chinese….form the symbol for ‘conflict’ by combining two terms: danger and opportunity.  Such a view does not perceive conflict in terms of collision, force and heat, but rather as challenge.”[ii] From this viewpoint conflict can serve as an opportunity for growth, as an opening for something new to emerge.

Mary saw the new thing emerging from the chaos of conflict surrounding Jesus and she knelt on the ground to anoint the feet of the one whose next steps would bring good news, hope and a future to the poor, the weak, the disenfranchised, the lost and the hopeless.  Jesus responds to Judas’ concern that the money spent on the perfume should have been given to the poor saying, “You always have the poor with you, you do not always have me.”

Jesus, quoting from the call to care for the poor found in Deuteronomy, is not privileging himself above the poor but aligning himself with them, not presuming that poverty is simply a fact of life but that service with the poor is and must always be at the center of life for the faithful, for the church. Mary’s act depicts what contemporary theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts into words, “The poor that we always have with us is Jesus. It is to the poor that all extravagance is to be given.”[iii] Jesus humanized and cherished those dehumanized by the Roman Empire.  Mary anointed the journey of his last days as he walked deeper into the danger of conflict between the ruling powers and Jesus’ vision of the free, faithful community. And through that conflict the opportunity for new life and resurrection is born.

Today in Lakeland, Florida a river flows in the desert. A vision of Jesus’ free and faithful community is present as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the people who pick the tomatoes we eat from the fields in Florida, culminates a 230-mile journey from Immokalee to the Publix Grocery store headquarters to demand rights, respect, and fair food for all.  It has been a journey into conflict between those who recognize the humanity of the farmworkers and those who do not.

Our church has been a part of their journey over the years and in their midst today is Rev. Noelle Damico.  I want to share with you their message and invitation shared at the 100-mile mark of their journey “We are farmworkers. Many of us did not go to school, but we are architects. Architects of a new reality. Because one day farmworkers said, “enough!” Enough with injustice! Enough with humiliation! And enough with always living underneath the table. For the first time, we are seeing changes in this long struggle that we’ve had for so long. And we’re not going to let Publix – nor any other corporation – rob us of that. That’s why we’re here on their land, that’s why we’re here, and from here we’re going to their house, the city of Lakeland.  And we’re inviting everyone who also wants to help us build, to continue in the building of this new day. We need all of you.  We need you in front of Publix on Sunday the 17th to show these wealthy executives that it doesn’t matter how powerful they think they are. The power and determination of farmworkers and all of society is stronger than they are.”[iv]

We join them today in spirit:

In the spirit of a God of hope who is always doing a new thing,

In the spirit of Mary who courageously and lovingly

prepared Jesus to enter into the conflict between life and death,

In the spirit of Judas or Publix or ourselves

when we stubbornly refuse because of our fear and sin to see the hope that God is birthing,

In the spirit of God who, in spite of hardened hearts, includes all people

in the wideness of God’s grace and excludes no one from the hope of transformation ,

And in the spirit of Jesus whose journey to the cross made a way through the wilderness for us all.


[i] Understanding Conflict: The Experience, Structure, and Dynamics of Conflict, John Paul Lederach, MCS Conciliation Quarterly (Summer, 1987), p. 2

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Feasting on the Word: Year C, Lent through Eastertide, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), p. 207.

[iv]First 100 Miles: March for Rights, Respect, and Fair Food, Coalition of Immokalee Workers


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jeff Nguyen permalink
    March 20, 2013 9:53 am

    Wonderful sermon. I was privileged to join the CIW march for two days in Sarasota and Bradenton. Now that’s what social justice looks like in action. I shared about the CIW and their fair food march on my blog as well.

    • March 20, 2013 11:11 am

      Thanks for reading Jeff. N. I will be sure and share your comment with Sarah.

      I also enjoyed your post, and will share it with my congregation. I was supposed to be with you all in Florida but had to stay home with a sick son while my wife marched. We have many good friends in Immokalee.

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